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Washington, Du Bois, and the Black Future

On July 27, 1894, the 26-year-old William Edward Burghardt Du Bois sent a letter to Booker T. Washington, the principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, asking whether there was a vacancy at Tuskegee for the coming term. Du Bois had just returned from two years of study in Europe and was a “Fisk and Harvard man,” with a reference from Daniel Coit Gilman, president of Johns Hopkins University. Du Bois had been at Fisk with Washington’s wife, so he added that Mrs.

Washington “knows of me. ” His training and connections were impressive, but at the time Du Bois was still an unknown figure, not yet what he was to become: a prominent public intellectual and forceful advocate of civil, political, and economic parity of blacks and whites in America. And Washington, the “Wizard of Tuskegee,” was the most distinguished black educator in the country. A month passed before Washington responded with the offer of a post teaching mathematics “if terms suit.

” By then, Du Bois had been offered, and had accepted, another position: chair of classics at Wilberforce University in Ohio (with a salary of $800 a year). He declined a subsequent offer from Lincoln Institute in Missouri (salary $1,050) and turned down Tuskegee as well. An invitation from Washington was flattering, but ever the man of principle, Du Bois would not break his earlier commitment. The episode set the pattern of contact the two men would have for the next 10 years.

Their intellectual visions did not jibe, to be sure: Washington spread the gospel of work and managed the Tuskegee Machine, a national network of loyal graduates, donors, and lieutenants, akin to a political machine, while Du Bois executed his sociological inquiries, jumped from one research job to another, and had other expectations for his race. Yet they sometimes acted as allies, with Washington treating Du Bois as a potential follower, and Du Bois treating Washington as a discreet patron. Every few months, letters were posted and projects deliberated.

It was a relationship of enticements, negotiations, tactical respect–and rising suspicion. Washington tempted Du Bois with job offers and solicited his counsel. Du Bois asked Washington for recommendations. They corresponded on legal strategies, planned conferences together, and saluted each other’s work. Each felt the other out for advantage. The later rupture between Du Bois and Washington has obscured this decade of guarded collegiality. By 1906, the men had become open enemies, standing for polar-opposite race policies in post-Reconstruction America.

Washington advocated “go slow” accommodationism, while Du Bois favored militant protest. Once Du Bois moved north in 1910 to become editor of the magazine Crisis at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Washington came to believe that Du Bois resented his power. And after Washington died in November 1915, Du Bois’s judgment was harsh indeed: “In stern justice, we must lay on the soul of this man a heavy responsibility for the consummation of Negro disfranchisement, the decline of the Negro college and public school, and the firmer establishment of color caste in this land.

” From 1894 to 1904, however, Du Bois felt differently. He was an ambitious young scholar/teacher eager to break into the black intelligentsia, atop which reigned Washington. The Wizard of Tuskegee could use an intellectual heavyweight such as Du Bois to spread his theory of industrial education, a curriculum stressing vocational skills, not liberal arts, and the Harvard Ph. D. craved an institution where academic inquiry might foment real social change. But Washington wanted operatives, and Du Bois prized his independence. Washington was practical and Du Bois proud.

No wonder the courtship was uneasy. Trustees at Tuskegee urged Washington to dump the young professor, and militants in Boston taunted Du Bois as Washington’s lackey. Only after their decade of cooperation collapsed into estrangement did the canonical Washington/ Du Bois opposition emerge. To the familiar tale of their antagonism an account of their earlier collegiality makes a fitting preface. The year after Du Bois sent his letter inquiring about a job, Washington delivered one of the great speeches in U. S. history, “The Atlanta Compromise,” in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.

The occasion was the Cotton States and International Exposition, and Washington was on the opening-day program. In Atlanta that day, “his eyes and his whole face lit up with the fire of prophecy,” a New York reporter wrote. When he was finished, The Atlanta Constitution marveled, “tears ran down the face of many blacks in the audience. White Southern women pulled flowers from the bosoms of their dresses and rained them on the black man on stage. ” It was a revolutionary moment, a black man sharing a podium with whites, shaking their hands, declaring a new social policy for the South.

But for all of Washington’s force and brilliance, his speech was a modest proposal. “The wisest among my race,” he assured the mixed audience, “understand that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly. ” Progress for blacks comes from a steady job, a bank account, a piece of property, not from protest and voting drives. Blacks will till fields, haul freight, and cook meals, a trusty labor force with no social aspirations and few political opinions. The higher attainments of culture and citizenship shall be deferred until blacks master the lower traits of thrift and industry.

Having proved their value as employees and consumers, they may join U. S. society as equals, for “no race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized. ” Moderate blacks and whites loved the Atlanta Compromise. Clark Howell, a leading white voice in the South, called it “a platform upon which blacks and whites can stand with full justice,” and President Grover Cleveland said, “Your words cannot fail to delight and encourage all who wish well for your race.

” But black intellectuals and militants scorned Washington’s program. Bishop Henry M. Turner, an advocate of emigration to Africa, thought that Washington “will have to live a long time to undo the harm he has done our race. ” One Negro newspaper reported, “Prof. B. T. or Bad Taste Wash. has made a speech…. The white press style Prof. Bad Taste the new Negro, but if there is anything in him except the most servile, type of the old Negro we fail to find it. ” Several hundred miles north, in Wilberforce, Du Bois sided with the moderates.

“Let me heartily congratulate you upon your phenomenal success in Atlanta,” he wrote to Washington Hearing of dissent in the black press, Du Bois went so far as to send a note to The New York Age, arguing that the Compromise “might be the basis of a real settlement between whites and blacks in the South, if the South opened up to the Negroes the doors of economic opportunity. ” Beneath Washington’s conciliatory tone he perceived a sound strategy: Don’t demand political rights until you have the economic power to back up the demand.

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